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Saturday, January 6, 2018

Crit: Dragan Novakovic

This fellow sent me a link to his pictures a while back, which link I will share with you anon but not quite yet.

I'm not a player, so it's not like I get this sort of thing every day. But, now and then, yes. I have enough time to give it a look, so generally I file the link and get around to it some day, and poke through the work. I try to make sense of it, see what's good in there (and, here's an interesting thing, there is almost always something to love, apparently people don't send me links to things I will hate).

Dragan's web site has, roughly, two bodies of work, and I looked at the wrong one first. I am going to point you to the one you need to start with: Northern England.

From there you can navigate back up and find his London photos.

I found the whole thing to be an interesting body of work, but since I started with London, I ended up having to kind of back into it.

It takes no effort at all to see that Dragan is a fellow with a camera in the 1970s, doing that 1970s thing of looking for the good ones. He's thinking one picture at a time. He's also got some real ability, there are some genuinely good ones in here. The result is a pile of things that are much more structured, much more "composed" than what we might think of as snapshots. These are the opposite of vernacular photography, they're quite mannered, and as noted, good examples of that.

The London pictures read as pretty much documentary. I do not feel that Dragan has an opinion here at all, no particular idea. He's simply recording what he finds interesting, and as such had ended up with a documentary record of sorts. It lacks breadth, precisely because Dragan is focused on the pictures he thinks are interesting (there are a lot of Interesting Looking Old Guys, for instance), so it doesn't really work as a document of the times unfortunately. The pictures, while good and sometimes excellent, are not strong enough to stand by themselves. Neither as a Concept/Art piece, nor as a historical document. It is, "merely", a collection of good and often excellent individual pictures.

I think it might be really interesting to pair these pictures with modern ones of the same places. The Brick Lane Market is still there, and could be shot again. With some editing (I assume Dragan has a relatively deep archive of these pictures) you could get something. The editor would impose, from the outside, that necessary opinion, concept, idea. It could work.

Moving on, though, to the Northern England pictures.

There's a much higher percentage in here of wall-hangers, of "the good one" shots. Damn near everything in this set could be hung on damn near any wall and do the wall justice.

Much more important, though, it's clear that Dragan has a real emotional response to the region. We are at once appalled by the endless factories and smokestacks and taken by the beauty he finds in places that are, objectively, pretty wretched. In the pictures of the people we see a much warmer connection than in the London photos. In London, Dragan is shooting "street" style, looking for candid shots of interesting people and tableaux. In Northern England as often than not people are posing for him. Even the candids feel more engaged, and correspondingly engaging.

While it is fairly clear in this set of pictures that Dragan was still trying to shoot individual wall-worthy pictures, it is also clear that he has an opinion about the region. That idea has led him to, more or less spontaneously, create the sort of thing I like, a coherent body of work that takes a position and says something.

So what we have, to my eye, is the same guy, with the same camera, doing more or less the same thing in two different places. In one of the places he has some fairly profound feeling (I am cheating here, to an extent, because I read this piece before writing this one, but I had arrived at this conclusion first.) In the other place, he's just taking pictures. It doesn't look to me like he even cares about about London to hate the place, he seems more or less neutral about it. Probably he likes it well enough, and thinks it's got some interesting looking bits. But his soul appears to be largely untouched by London, whereas it is deeply moved by the north.

And so I offer this as a lesson. It is that emotional connection, that depth of feeling, that makes all the difference. Same man, same camera, same time, same methods. Totally different bodies of work. I am confident that I have identified precisely what makes the difference.


  1. While I agree there are many great photos to be seen here, I can't help but wonder how much of my positive reaction is due to nostalgia and viewing urban scenes that are, today, very much of a different time and place?

    (Even the tell-tale grain of the Tri-X film Novakovic used makes me smile separately and apart from the content of his photos!)

    Or put another way, would these photos have been equally as interesting to me if I was viewing them in the 1970s, when the scenes they captured were both contemporaneous and commonplace, instead of today, when they've largely been relegated to history and are well on their way to being forgotten entirely?

    As a documentary photographer myself, I wonder sometimes if for this reason, the ultimate audience for my photos hasn't been born yet?

    (Assuming, of course, they don't disappear in the meantime, which is certainly more likely than not to happen, especially if I preserve them only in a digital format instead of as prints on paper or in book form.)

  2. Interesting, in the nostalgic way that all photographs of our own past are (I'd forgotten that we all dressed in monochrome back then, and that the sun never shone before 1977), but mainly lacking that extra spark that distinguishes "special" work. For which I'd point you to the photos of Marketa Luskacova, another East European at large in Britain in that period, whose work bears comparison with that of Josef Koudelka.


  3. I think perhaps we're missing my point ;)

    It's not so much that the pictures are this way or that, it's that the Northern England collection is distinctly different from the London photographs, and (I think) the reasons for that are clear.

    1. Nope, I think we're stepping straight past your point, to another point we'd rather make. As I read on a mug I was handed this morning: "I'm not arguing, I'm just explaining why I am right"!

      Seriously, though, I think anyone who lived in Manchester or Bolton in that era would find those northern pictures downright annoying with their highly selective ruin-porn fixation.


    2. Yeah, isn't that interesting? I mean, on the one hand I recognize these pictures as photos of, essentially, hell. On the other hand they're really lovely. And on the third hand I cannot quite see what Dragan is doing to conceal the "hell" part and make them look pretty. I mean, there's a bit of artful mist and whatnot, but I don't think he put the mist in.

      But yeah, the actual residents of hell might find the whole thing pretty offputting.

    3. Contrary to what one may believe or wants to believe, there is no evil intent on my part in these photographs and the truth is very simple: except for my stays in Burnley and Oldham of several days each, all my visits to Northern England were very brief, often amounting to one-day journeys. For instance, during my first visit to the region, I went through the large cities of Leeds and Bradford in a great hurry, managing to take only one picture in the latter, in order to be also able to see Halifax, my main point of interest, before catching the night train back to London. This lack of time (coupled with the need to economize on film) severely restricted my choice of subject matter, so I naturally had to concentrate on my chief interest and reason for being there in the first place, namely the vestiges of the Industrial Revolution. Hardly the ideal conditions for undertaking any ambitious, in-depth and long-term project of the kind some well-known photographers did with great success. Considering the circumstances in which I 'worked', as well as that I was almost an absolute beginner in photography and made fewer than a total of 550 exposures during all my visits to the area over the years, I consider that I could have done worse.

      While I cannot prevent anyone from seeing pornography where none is intended or exists, I wish to reassure all who fear that my pictures may cause offence to some people. Please look up the article with my Northern England pictures on Macfilos and read the comments (some of them by people who grew up in the area), and you will see for yourself that the pictures elicited nothing but positive reactions and evoked the fondest of memories.

    4. Hi Dragan,

      Apologies if my term "ruin-porn" was offensive -- the parallel I was drawing was not with pornography, as such, but with, say, photos of Detroit which dwell on the abandoned factories there, or on the generally quite small parts of devastated cities in the Middle East (or indeed the Balkans), because they yield interesting photographs so readily, but which have a slightly questionable appeal to those of us not living amidst destruction and decay. These pictures form a well-established genre, generally known as "ruin-porn". The term is not my invention.


  4. I only began banging on this drum yesterday, in a comment left on Darren Campion's review of Alec Soth's "Sleeping by the Mississippi" https://darrencampion.com/2018/01/11/american-dreamer-alec-soths-sleeping-by-the-mississippi/ (which he hasn't got around to publishing, didn't like or whatever).

    First of all these (Nokavic's) are fine sets of photographs, somewhat lacking in organization and presentation on his website.

    With regard to Amolitor's and Campion's salient points of emotional connection to subject, see http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/states-of-america-one-photographer-s-look-at-social-dislocation-a-678291.html, and https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1987341.Journey_to_Nowhere

    In both these cases (of course there are many others), the photographers had important, even crucial stories to tell. They went after their stories with great verve and commitment, and without regard to the attractiveness of the images they produced, except insofar as it contributed to the clarity of story-telling. Holdt a self-described "amateur", and Williamson a professional photojournalist (so neither an 'art' photographer). Remind me: what are we playing at?

    Isn't it alarming how far contemporary 'art' photography has wantonly drifted into a kind of insipid and anodyne, enigmatic banality? That trope's getting old.

    Rounding back on Nokavic's photos, the point is well made in comments above regarding the beguiling, even irresistible nostalgia factor at work in our appreciation of past photography, and how this inflects contemporary photography. Ruin kitsch, not ruin "porn". "More beautiful than a beautiful thing is the ruin of a beautiful thing" -- Baudelaire, "Fleurs du Mal."

    1. I think Darren's blog does not do comments, but I did notice that he had comments open on that post. Checking back, I see that this is no longer true.

      I speculate that the "comments open" was just an oversight on his part. Frankly, he owes you an apology.

      I find Darren to be one of the less annoying of the thoughtful people writing online about photography. He's a bit poncy, but lacks most of the obnoxious tics. I rather wish he'd take comments.

    2. Yeah, maybe he has bigger fish to fry. His blog appears to be a very part-time endeavor, his previous post was in October.